Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

The idea of an origin - of a precise beginning, once and for all time – is an idea that is very difficult to shake off. It has been said that a cat will have an idea of God as a very large cat, and a dog will have the same idea as a very large dog, and so on. It may well be that human beings have an idea of a beginning, and of an end, because we are all too conscious of our own beginning and end. We observe what happens around us, throughout nature, and this seems to confirm our view of the finitude of the universe, and of our own finite being. The universe must, empirically and rationally, have had a beginning, and it will – without fail, and like us – have an end. Indeed, our current cosmological view is founded on this assumption, and so in astrophysics we have the theory of the ‘big bang’ and the birth of space-time: the existence of space-time and the vastness of its contents of galaxy upon galaxy, eon upon eon, began in a minute point, and is still expanding – perhaps at an accelerating rate.

This view was initially challenged by some cosmologists because it seemed to allow religious concepts to re-enter scientific theory - namely, the idea of a ‘genesis’ of creation - when for centuries science had been moving steadily away from the idea of a God-centred material universe, as an anthropocentric and non-scientific construct. Interestingly, ‘big-bang’ theory is now being superseded by the theory of the ‘multi-verse’, i.e. a collection of ‘universes’, each with its own life-cycle, that are able to spawn and multiply before their eventual demise: a regeneration process that may occur through black holes - which it now seems are much more numerous than originally thought. This view concurs to some extent with what we know (or don’t know) about quantum physics, and has led some physicists to speculate on the possible existence of many other worlds in other dimensions.

While this is all quite fascinating and seems novel to us, in effect what science is grappling with here are age-old notions that have always puzzled the human mind: infinity and eternity.

Basically, and here one begins to find that the language one uses is also founded in concepts of origination in the use of a word such as ‘basically’, the human mind seems to search for foundations, for beginnings, for fixed points of reference from which it can measure, and construct. The problem arises when the mind seeks to go beyond space-time.   It would appear to be the case that on earth the human species is the only one that is aware of time in this conscious, historical way - although of course we cannot know that for certain. Heidegger may have been correct when he noted "only ex‑ sistent man is historical, 'nature' has no history".

In that case it is not difficult to imagine why our ancestors evolved creation myths to explain how everything had come into existence, including themselves. But perhaps in reality the ‘genesis’ that they imagined just as interestingly indicates to us the period in time when humankind in its evolution began to be able to think in a reflective way. Not all cultures or religions share this aspect of belief, however. Some have evolved a view of the universe as being without beginning or end, and therefore traditionally do not have a teleological idea of history, as we have in the West.

Paradoxically, the Darwinian paradigm of progressive evolution is related to the Judeo-Christian notion of historicism, as much as it is to the Hegelian idea of ‘spirit’, and the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism - i.e. that history is a line of progress, with a beginning and a projected end. However, the eschatological nature of Christianity may conceal an inner truth rather than an outer historical prediction. It could be that for someone who discovers the real truth in religion, time - in a sense - does come to an end, and space has no special relevance. This transcendent event would then concur with Eastern philosophy, where the sincere seeker is ‘liberated’ from the burden of the cycle of birth and death, pleasure and pain, time and space. It is also worth noting that Western (continental) philosophy has reached a point where the established notions of historicism, logocentrism, onto-theology, and so on are in a state of suspension.

What has all this to do with art? Well, not very much, if we think about it too much in terms of spiritual belief and non-belief. But could it perhaps be that art has the power to liberate to some extent? In its presentation as non-empirical reality, in forms which are in turn certainly realities of another kind, it presents to us another possibility, a kind of detachment in which what we take to be finite experience is actually a token of the experience of infinity. And what we perceive as time is a tiny portion of the flow of eternity. If we could really feel this in everything, then existence might be enjoyed with no thought of the past or future other than as an infinite and eternal delight, each moment the fulfilled promise of its own timeless origin, and its own unlimited horizon - a supreme gift of play.

When sunlight rests upon a profound sea,
Time's air is sparkling, dream is certainty --
Pure artifice both of an eternal Cause.

                                                                                                           - Paul Valéry


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